Wednesday, October 1, 2008


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 17, Number 5 (May 2006), p. 25.

In recent months I’ve been musing in these pages on place-consciousness in the Irish literary imagination—especially in the imagination of exiles. Certainly, as Patrick Sheeran has noted, “topomania” (his variation on what French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has named “topophilia”—the love of place) not only is “a product of the native tradition” but also “may well be fostered by displacement.” As Sheeran argues in his essay “Genius Fabulae: The Irish Sense of Place”: “The awareness of place qua place is especially acute in those who have left it as is shown by Joyce’s Dublin, Yeats’s Sligo, O’Flaherty’s and Ó Direáin’s Aran, Ó Cadhain’s Iar Chonnacht, Kavanagh’s Monaghan, Montague’s Tyrone and Heaney’s County Derry. It is a quality of awareness that occurs at a fracture point; between being rooted and being alienated, being an insider and an outsider.”

But as Seamus Heaney notes in his own essay titled “The Sense of Place,” that awareness can have its subliminal counterpart that almost invariably predates the moment of fracture: “I think there are two ways in which place is known and cherished, two ways which may be complementary but which are just as likely to be antipathetic. One is lived, illiterate and unconscious, the other learned, literate and conscious. In the literary sensibility, both are likely to co-exist in a conscious and unconscious tension.” For Heaney himself this dual sensibility is evident from the start of his poetic career in his mentioning of “Toner’s bog” in “Digging,” the first poem in his first volume of poems, Death of a Naturalist (1966). A placename not found on any official map—except possibly the most detailed plotting of the landscape in Heaney’s native rural south County Derry—the immediate “meaning” of Toner’s bog is exclusively local: it is a real place in the real world of Heaney’s “lived, illiterate and unconscious” childhood.

Inserted into the poem, however, the named place takes on different properties: grounding the poem in that real world, the reference not only authenticates Heaney to himself and to his readers as a commentator on rural Irish experience but also authenticates that experience, validating it as viable subject matter for the poetic imagination. A major acknowledged influence on Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh once noted in a poem that “Naming . . . is the love-act and its pledge.” Thus, identifying Toner’s bog by name, Heaney is staking a claim that is both personal and poetic, both pre-literary and literary.

Eventually, most obviously in Heaney’s third volume, Wintering Out (1972), such naming would take on a political resonance as well. This is especially pronounced in a poem like “A New Song,” in which the mere mention of Derrygarve, a village on the Moyola River in south County Derry, first provokes in the poet a fond memory of “the river’s long swerve, / A kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk // And stepping stones like black molars / Sunk in the ford, the shifty glaze / Of the whirlpool, the Moyola / Pleasuring beneath alder trees.” Quickly, however—and understandably, given the poem’s provenance in the early 1970s during the escalation of the sectarian “Troubles” in Northern Ireland—Heaney realizes that naming is also claiming: that no less than Derrygarve, which derives from the Irish doire (oak wood) plus garbh (rough), a comparable Anglophonic placename is not a mere “vocable,” is not a mere sequence of meaningless sounds. Indeed, Heaney implies, the local towns of Castledawson and Upperlands are just what they sound like: staunch emblems of the British presence, both historical and contemporary, in the North.

In this respect, other places that Heaney invokes by name in Wintering Out may carry similar implications: Anahorish (deriving from anach fhior uisce, “place of clear water”) and Toome (“My mouth holds round / the soft blastings, / Toome, Toome,” Heaney writes) and Moyola (“The tawny guttural water / spells itself”). But the most subtle of Heaney’s territorial claims on place—on place made word and on word made place—may be the poem “Broagh,” the first word of which translates the title, a contracted variant of the Irish phrase bruach abhana:

00000Riverbank, the long rigs
00000ending in broad docken
00000and a canopied pad
00000down to the ford.

00000The garden mould
00000bruised easily, the shower
00000gathering in your heelmark
00000was the black O

00000in Broagh,
00000its low tattoo
00000among the windy boortrees
00000and rhubarb-blades

00000ended almost
00000suddenly, like that last
00000gh the strangers found
00000difficult to manage.

Understandably, this poem has received a measure of critical attention, as well as a measure of readerly appreciation, for its obvious focus on the challenge that “strangers” (plausibly, but not exclusively, the British) face in pronouncing correctly not only that lightly guttural gh but also that first vowel, the clipped o, which makes this seemingly simple word into a sort of two-syllable tongue-twister. Tellingly, however, “Broagh” begins to operate as “a verbal contraption” (W. H. Auden’s fine phrase) fueled by local specifics long before that tricky vowel. In fact, each line of the first stanza concludes with a word that, almost as much as the name Broagh itself, grounds the poem in Heaney’s particular world: “rigs” is a regional term for ploughed furrows; “docken” is a local variation on the deep-rooted weed known elsewhere as burdock; “pad” approximates the local pronunciation of “path”; and “ford,” deriving from the Old Norse word fjord (found as a suffix in Irish placenames like Waterford and Wexford) and referring to a shallow point in the river that would allow one to wade across, has clearly been retained in the vernacular from the time of the Viking invasions of Ireland in the 9th and 10th centuries. (The Viking legacy would of course be Heaney’s central fascination in his 1975 volume North.) In a similar fashion, the word “boortrees” in the third stanza resonates as the local pronunciation of “bower trees”—that is, elderberry trees.

Obviously, then, “Broagh”—on the surface a mere two sentences, readable in one breath—is deceptively simple. And in a way that is Heaney’s point: no less than the language of poetry, the language of the everyday world can be loaded with implication—sometimes political implication. In “Digging,” he describes his grandfather “going down and down / For the good turf” and closes that poem with his famous promise: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” In “Broagh,” he actually employs a form which visually reinforces that metaphorical action. Explaining how, beginning with Wintering Out, Heaney began to write “compressed, mostly two-stress lines, unrhymed, arranged in slender quatrains, and having an extremely narrow appearance on the page,” critic Blake Morrison describes the effect as “arterial” and/or “artesian”: Heaney’s poems work like “drills, wells, augers, capillaries, mine-shafts, bore-holes, plumb-lines.” Digging beneath the surface of naming in “Broagh,” Heaney reminds his readers, just as he was reminded by hearing the name Derrygarve, not only that place can be known and cherished in more than one way but also that our conscious and unconscious appreciation of a place can be affected by its very name.
way but also that our conscious and unconscious

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